Their Bad Mother


I’ve always loved old clothes. Old things in general, really. When I
was very small, and for a very long time after, when I was no longer
quite so small, I would spend hours in an attic room in my
grandparents’ house, a room that used to be my mother’s, but which came
to serve as a repository of all my grandmother’s more glittery
treasures: endless boxes of costume jewelry and hats and old dresses
and robes and the occasional stray piece of hard candy, invariably
scooped up by my little sister for exploratory sucking. My grandmother
herself was, to my mind, dazzlingly fashionable, in her red lipstick
and her turbans and her wide-cut trousers. She looked like every
heroine on every old black-and-white movie that we watched on her
ancient television on Sunday afternoons, right down to the
scotch-on-the-rocks rattling in the glass in her hand. She loved
glamor, my grandmother, and I loved it with her.

When I became to old to play around in her attic of treasures –
when, indeed, she died and my grandfather sold the house and got rid of
her things, to my eternal dismay – I began assembling my own
collection. Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village – these became my
attics, to be rummaged through for treasure, and rummage I did. By the
time I was in my early twenties I had a vast collection of vintage
clothing and accessories – snakeskin stilettos from the fifties, an
Yves Saint Laurent pea coat from the sixties, ultrasuede Halston from
the seventies, polka-dotted Versace from the eighties, and all variety
of treasures from across the decades (the perfect faded Flintstones
pajama top featuring Pebbles and Bam-Bam: timeless) – that I delighted
in and
which I dedicated, in secret, to my grandmother.

Treasures from that collection have come and gone – to the moths, to
careless movers, to the hazards of a hard night drinking Jagermeister
at somebody’s wedding – but I still have most of those clothes, tucked
away in storage, preserved for…? What? My daughter, perhaps, if such
things become of interest to her. Or perhaps just for the sake of
collection. I’m a magpie when it comes to clothes and other vintage
arcana – I collect and I keep, never ever discarding – both because I
love those things for their beauty and because I fear (a hangover from
the loss of my grandmother’s treasures, no doubt) missing out on or
losing something that should be treasured.

Something like my grandmother’s wedding dress, which was kept in
that attic and which I was never allowed to play with, for obvious
reasons. My grandmother didn’t have a happy marriage, but she was
fiercely proud of that dress, which was silk, her first real dress, her
first grown-up dress, a grown-up dress for a bride of eighteen. And so
it, unlike her other dresses, her furs, her jewelry, was off-limits for
play. It was kept, sealed, in a musty old box that she never dared
open; I could only imagine it, as I trailed my candy-sticky fingers
over the edges of that box, wishing that I could touch it, just once.
My imagination was fueled by the one picture that she kept from her
wedding – a picture of her, alone, standing the garden of the house
that she and her husband, my grandfather, would raise their family in.
Wearing that dress, a vision in ivory silk, a starlet for one day.

I miss that dress, even though I never once touched its hem. And I
think that, perhaps, all of my rummaging habits can be traced back to
that dress – that elusive garment that embodied, for my grandmother, a 
moment of glamor in an otherwise pedestrian life and that came to
represent, for me, the power of a swath of fabric (and, indeed, the
power of a little bit of rhinestone/Bakelite/vintage anything) to
transport. Magic.

It would have been her 84th birthday today. I no longer have my grandma, but I have that picture of her in that dress, and that is no small thing.

Revised and adapted from an essay originally posted here. Copyright Catherine Connors.

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